Friday, May 24, 2013

Play It Forward

Flyer for tonight's gig.  Designed by Mark Jason.
As I sit in my mother and father-in-laws house in Ann Arbor typing this, Mark Jason is getting started playing a gig I was slated to play at Handlebar in The Grove.  In an uncharacteristic lack of foresight, I booked a happy hour show for the Friday before Memorial Day, the precise weekend my wife and I had been planning on visiting her family. 

When push came to shove, Mark, who had been scheduled to play the middle set between my sets, boldly took on the whole three hours (which I suspect may have been more than he bargained for when he accepted the gig).  Luckily, however, Mark found someone to open for him, who is probably just getting off the stage as I type these words.

This turn of events has a magnitude that I think is more profound than it seems at first, one that speaks to the connectedness of all of us.  Mark comes to my last open mic, thoroughly impresses EVERYONE and is offered a gig as a result.  That gig’s main act, having another engagement to attend to, must bow out, and Mark is thrusted into a position where he can give someone else an opportunity.  That short chain begins with me, and someone I don’t even know benefits from it.  This seems to be the great serendipity of life.
Mark Jason performing at the last OMP.

My start in St. Louis came about in a similar way.  I had been meandering around town from open mic to open mic for about 3 months, and in that time I had met a fellow open mic officianado, Billy Croghan.  At Luna Lounge one night, where Billy was running his own open mic at the time, I was picking his brain about booking gigs, a feat that was still outside my purview.  It was then that Billy offered what would become my first gig since college, first acoustic solo gig ever and the first of my over 100 gigs in St. Louis.  Billy gave me 30 minutes to play his break at Tin Can, Morgan Ford.

That gig, on September 17th 2011, made all the difference.  It was in a very real way the catalyst for everything I’ve done since.  My residencies, ArtWalk, my various bands, Open Mic @ Plush—the LBJ experience in STL might have happened very differently, or not at all, had I not befriended Billy Croghan and been given a shot to entertain with him.

So, I see this kind of collaboration as essential to building lasting alliances and strong careers for musicians in our local scene, especially those just starting out.  It’s important for us to help and develop one another, and one way we can do that is by playing gigs together—those of us with experience giving opportunities to those without.

A lot of folks wouldn’t want to offer a co-bill to a brand new artist.  Presumably, they have no fans, no network.  Presumably, they will be shaky, unprofessional, make rooky mistakes.  I can only imagine how my set at Billy’s gig must have seemed to an onlooker.  I brought a total fan base of 1, my wife (then fiancĂ©e), Lindsey.  I was sweaty and nervous and had an underdeveloped stage persona.  I forgot the lyrics to one song and made different ones up on the spot.  I was limited in my ability to respond to the crowd.
Billy and I at the first SLSA showcase, Nov. 2011.

But all of that was okay.  Billy could do all of those things, I was there to support and to get my sea legs.  It’s important that we provide those opportunities for one another because few venues would hire a performer like the sorry spectacle I proved to be at that gig.  Folks like that would be confined to playing short sets at open mics and long sets in front of the bedroom mirror, making slow progress.  But, the surest way to become a truly skilled and magnetic performer is to play full sets in front of real audiences.  The time it takes to close the gap between “okay” and “WOW” diminishes 100 fold when real crowd experience comes into play.

Not to mention there can be benefits for the experienced performer who lends a helping hand to a new comer.  If my first stage (punning stage as a step in a process and as a platform for performance…clever!) was getting gigs by the kindness of strangers (I have a really cool song called Stranger, just fyi), then my next stage was booking my own gigs that were populated almost entirely by friends, family, and fans of the people who I gave an opportunity to play with me. 

You see, not all new performers are like I was when Billy gave me a shot.  I was new in town; the only people I knew were my coworkers at Barnes and Noble and other musicians.  I couldn’t offer Billy a big cadre of supporters.  But, when Bob McMahon played a middle set at my residency at Historic Crossroads, I saw yet another application of that timeless promotional maxim, “People you know know people you don’t.”  Bob, who by his own admission hadn’t played out in quite some time, filled the house at Historic Crossroads.  He brought with him a group of people that would have otherwise not been exposed to my music, giving me an opportunity to win their fandom.

Bob McMahon in a particularly red hoodie performing at our first gig together at Historic Crossroads, January 2012.
So, offering a gig to a new-comer or a back-comer isn’t an altruistic undertaking.  It’s cooperative.  It’s mutually beneficial.  Chances are, this person has been playing his or her music with a small yet adamant group of supporters backing them the whole way.  So offering this new artist an opportunity is in itself an opportunity to reach a group of people who might become your fans as well.  To some, this will no doubt seem cynical, but this will be the crowd who mistakes it for selfishness.  It is my personal philosophy that the best possible arrangement is not for me to benefit and you to suffer (selfishness) or for you to benefit and me to suffer (altruism) but for you and I both to benefit (cooperation).  After all, it’s not a zero-sum game.  A person can remain your fan and become mine.  Let’s share!

There are several considerations when putting together a bill, be it for a simple happy hour show, a showcase, or a bash like my friends and I are throwing next Saturday.  People expect you to play with bands that are going for a similar sound or idea.  Usually you’ll want to play with someone who’s been grinding for a while and have something of a following.  You want to play with people you enjoy working with and being around.  I would ask that you add to your criteria people who have potential, people who need a shot, people who need exposure.  These same folks might give you some unexpected exposure.  But if not, you’ve made a new connection that could enrich your life in ways yet unforeseen.  When you pay it forward, you never know when the good will might find its way back to you.

It’s your scene.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Superfly and the Soul of the Streets (Thoughts on Hip Hop: Part 1)

Why can’t we brothers
Protect one another?
No one’s serious
And it makes me furious!
Don’t be misled.

You listened to any rap lately?  There’s some really thoughtful and thought provoking stuff out there but, for the most part, those offerings are few and far between in pop media.  There are far more folks emulating Soulja Boy right now than Talib Kweli.  And if you turn on Hip Hop radio (104.1 in STL), you’re likely to be served a musical diet composed of 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti and Future.  They’re clever, stylish, and, in many ways, innovative, but they rarely say anything of any real weight or depth.

This may be due to the fact that in the past two decades, Hip Hop artists have gone Pop.  And as happens so often when a genre becomes Pop, the subject matter has narrowed and diluted.  But we didn’t end up with some bubble-gum form of Hip Hop (it’s funny that rap had the opposite trajectory of many genres, getting grittier over time.  A genre whose first popular stars were Kurtis Blow and The Sugar Hill Gang has yielded Lil Wayne and Rick Ross while Punk has devolved from the Sex Pistols to Avril Levine).  Instead Hip Pop (yeah that’s mine, coin it) artists kept their subject matter gritty, in an effort to keep their base audience satisfied—attempting to stay real and relevant to the experience of street people.  In fact, Rap, even in its current Pop incarnation, is often seen as a lens into the streets; rap artists bring to the fore the lives, livelihoods, and aspirations of the hood.  But, in the process, pop rap glamorizes a lot of what’s not good in the hood, instead of critiquing it and inspiring us to fix it.

That’s why every, once in a while, it’s good to take a few steps back…way back.  Rap wasn’t the first form of music to report the struggles of street people and broadcast it writ large for the American public.  In fact, before Kurtis Blow riffed the poignant “brakes on a plane, brakes on a train, breaks to make you go insane,” and before the Sugar Hill Gang was making every gangster shake his head in disgust instead of delight, it was the Soul artist that held the title poet laureate of these here streets.  And never was this role played to better effect than when Curtis Mayfield released his masterpiece, Superfly, in 1972.

If you’ve never heard, Superfly, I suggest you go listen to it, in its 37 minute entirety, right now.  I’ll wait here.  (  Is your mind BLOWN right now?  You’re welcome.

The gritty soundtrack for a popular blaxploitation film of the same name, Superfly was Mayfield’s fourth solo album after leaving the Impressions and his most successful album up to that time.  It had two singles that sold over a million copies and was one of a handful of movie soundtracks in film history to out-gross its film.  It was a massive hit, easily on par (proportionally… there were fewer of us in ’72) with the reach of many of today’s Hip Pop releases.

Just like many Rap lyrics today, the film and album dealt with the trials and triumphs of drug dealers in the inner city.  On first glance, the songs on Superfly are replete with the drugs, sex, violence and braggadocio that would be familiar to a 21st century Hip Hop connoisseur.  Nowhere is this clearer than in my personal favorite track from the album Pusherman.

Though never a single, the second track from Superfly, Pusherman, is the song to hear from this album.  You’ve already heard the bass line somewhere and you probably didn’t know it.  The melody and vocal cadence has been sampled or referenced by rappers as diverse as Eminem, Ice-T, and The Clipse.  It’s been selected as one of the 500 songs that shaped Rock & Roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of fame.  As soon as you hear those iconic first lyrics, “I’m your mama.  I’m your daddy.  I’m that nigga in the alley,” you’re strapped in for a ride through a day in the life of your local pusher.

We might compare this classic track to the second track off 2 Chainz debut album that dropped last August.  The track is entitled simply, Crack.   The opening lyrics go, “Started from the trap now I rap/ No matter where I’m at, I got CRACK.”  Now, to be fair, part of what 2 Chainz is doing in this track is punning that his music is intoxicating and addictive and, therefore, though he no longer sells literal crack, he has still “got crack.”  But he is also paying homage to the dope boy lifestyle in this and the following track, Dope Peddler, in a way that is anything but critical.  It’s comical, celebratory, clever in places, but not critical.

Upon first listen to Pusherman, you might mistake Curtis Mayfield for endorsing that lifestyle.  The music is irresistibly laid back and cool.  The lyrics speak confidence and control. 

I’m your mama.  I’m your daddy.
I’m that nigga in the alley.
I’m your doctor.  What you need?
Want some coke?  Have some weed.
You know me.  I’m your friend.
Your main boy—thick and thin.
I’m your pusherman.

He goes on to talk about “making money all the time” and having the “baddest bitches in the bed.”  How Hip Pop is that?

Keep listening.  He doesn’t just let the pusher off without a challenge.  Just as the bass line changes and the muted strums of that sublime funk guitar alters the mood, the pusher’s own self-assurance is challenged as we learn he’s been told he could be nothing else but a hustler in spite of himself and how he has a woman he loves desperately and wants to give her something better than himself.  “How long can a good thing last?” he asks.  This pusherman is deeper than Rap allows the dope boy to be.  He has a broader story and he understands the moral complications of what he’s doing.  This draws the whole practice into question in a way that the dope boy folklore in Hip Hop seems unwilling to do.

Mayfield does a similar trick with the violence that is so often portrayed in our music and, then as now, is such a problem in our communities.  Usually when violence is invoked in Rap, the main affect is to illustrate how tough the speaker is.  Not for Curtis.  The first single released from the album, “Freddie’s Dead,” recounts a tale of a junkie who gets caught up and is presumably killed.  He frankly relates in the opening lyrics, “Freddie’s dead/That’s what I said.”  He goes on to do a lyrical one-two punch to both drug dependency/trafficking (Freddie’s on the corner now/If you want to be a junkie, well/ remember Freddie’s dead) and violence (Why can’t we brother’s/ protect one another?).  He manages to be cautionary, without being preachy when he relates the two lines, on an island by themselves in the whole song,

If you don’t try
You’re gonna die.

It’s important that Curtis does all of this without sounding preachy.  He couches the message within the story itself.  He tells a gritty street tale, throws in some wisdom here and there, but never lets the message overpower the method, which is ultimately the art that the listener is seeking to enjoy.  Obviously, no one wants to be preached to in a Pop song.  That’s why subtlety is important; that’s what Mayfield had and what all of us who attempt to write any kind of music can learn from him.

Now, I’m not some good-old-days historophile bent on turning back the clock.  Not all music in the seventies was so conscientious.  This was an age that saw popular music that was every bit as vapid as what’s offered today (Disco Infernoooooo!)  But that music didn’t purport to be REAL the way Hip Pop does.  No, I listen to contemporary Rap music.  I own both 2 Chainz and Future’s albums.  At best, it’s a guilty pleasure; at worst, it’s a weekend anthem.  But I don’t take it seriously.  It is stage craft.  It’s a theatre of the absurd.  I never forget what it is and how harmful listening to only this kind of music—only getting these messages—can be.  It’s like a steady diet of junk food—pizza, French fries, and coke—all day, every day.  It’s just bad for you.  The meat-and-potatoes is the stuff like what Curtis Mayfield put on wax 41 years ago.  It was, and remains today, the very epitome of real.

So, what is real?  We have to take better care of one another.  We have to build one another up.  We have to kick materialism and dependency.  These things are real and they were the very ideas that Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack and other Soul artists tried to bring to light in the early seventies.  They are the ideas that can save and strengthen our communities.  And it’s what we have to find a way back to now.

Friday, May 10, 2013

5 Ways to Support Local Artists FROM YOUR COUCH!

This is me seated on a couch... ballin!
I know you.  You’re like me.  You want to be involved.  You want to be part of what breathes vitality into our little music and arts scene.  But you’re busy.  You work; you have a wife and kids—responsibilities.  And plus you have a pretty demanding television schedule, and those facebook updates won’t check themselves.

Being a scenester has always been a contact sport.  You have to get out there, rub shoulders with the stakeholders and be in the places that count to be part of the living tissue of a thriving scene.  And the music and arts scene here in St. Louis is constantly growing and changing, so much so that it can be hard to keep up the old fashioned way.  But, in an age of ever-increasing connectivity, keeping informed, staying involved, and supporting local artists is a little bit easier.  Here’s a few ways you can bring the scene to you and show the people creating cool stuff in this city that you get it and you give a damn.

1.       Like

I know you have a facebook profile.  So have you liked your favorite local act’s page yet?  Facebook is one of the quickest and easiest ways to maintain a web presence that connects their content to the public, so they almost certainly have page.  Just type in the name of the band and go for it.  If the name is common, you may have to sift through some unrelated pages and profiles to find what you’re looking for.  But we’re talking 20-40 seconds of work here.  Small price.

The little bit of trouble you go to in order to find the artist is a big boon to their brand.  You’re helping to connect them to others who wouldn’t be privy to their work.  Now that facebook likes are being seen with some legitimacy, more likes can result in gigs at some of the city’s best venues.  And by seeing their updates and posts, you’re able to keep up to date on events, releases, and news. 
 So try it.  Log on to facebook right now and search for LBJ.  I’ll wait here…Found it?  Okay, click like!  Voila!  And merci.

2.       Share

Okay, we’re still on facebook.  We’ve liked someone’s page.  We’ve thrown in our lot with the throng of friends, family, and fans who’ve decided to support this artist.  Job done.

Not quite.  You see, when you like something, you tell someone about it.  Facebook has a tab for that.  Enter “share.”  By sharing something on your page, you are essentially saying to anyone paying attention, “I endorse this.  You should look into it.”  People commonly share memes they found on google images.  So share a photograph from your favorite group’s latest show while you’re at it.  And when you’re done posting video montages of cute kittens, share that video your favorite guitarist just posted that has 100 views.  Be part of the momentum that brings it to 200, then 500, then 1000.

3.       Subscribe

Most of us are subscribed to someone’s youtube channel, be it our third cousin or some anonymous content provider half a world away.  So if your favorite local act has a youtube channel where they post videos of concerts, intimate living room performances, silly commentaries or whatever, do them a solid and subscribe.  It’s no skin off your nose and it just looks good for them.  Seems like not much of anything, but the number of youtube subscribers an artist has can be another metric artists can use to ramp up their bargaining power with venues or perhaps even record execs if their bent is on getting signed (granted, we’re talking a LOT of subscribers at that point).  It’s yet another way of showing people, “I have an audience.  People give a damn about what I’m doing.”

4.       Listen

Have you ever been to reverbnation?  I was skeptical of it when I first joined (my profile), but now I’m pretty well sold on it.  Musicians, fans, venues and promoters create profiles, explore, upload content, and talk to one another.  It’s a good way to experience all kinds of new music that’s being created right in your back yard by artists of all stripes and levels.  Before I met my friend, Tony Compton, I listened to his music on reverbnation.  The Leads are no longer together, but I still listen to their music on reverbnation.  A singer songwriter calling himself Platinumghost 3000 blessed the stage at my last open mic after listening to my music on revernation.  It’s a great site to discover, listen to and keep up with local artists.

That’s not all.  In the event that your favorite act isn’t on reverbnation, they probably have music on soundcloud or bandcamp, both platforms with their own merits.  The point is, there is some place you can go to listen, and you should.  The first three points kind of don’t matter that much if you don’t listen.  I mean, it’s nice to have your support with a click and a share here and there.  But, can you be a fan if you don’t listen?  So, LISTEN!

5.       Download

The ultimate test of fanhood is the dollar test.  Beyond posting tracks for the listening public, there are plenty of online platforms artists use to sell their music.  Reverbnation, Bandcamp, and CD Baby are just a few.  There are even packages offered through CD Baby and other companies that put indie music on iTunes.  You can search the iTunes store for my friends The Psychedelic Psychonauts right now.  Go on, I’ll wait.  And come June, the same will be true for my upcoming EP, “Guitar Machine” (release date pending).

But you don’t have to spend your hard earned cash in this tough economy, although I’d love you to buy me something pretty, because most of us just want to be in your collection one way or another.  Just as you’ll see many local artists giving out free demos at their shows, they’re also giving out free downloads on their websites.  And once again, when you download, the artist benefits, even if not monetarily.  Websites keep careful track of these metrics, and lots of downloads looks good on the old musician resume.  So take advantage of freebees!

So you might not have time or energy or the disposable income to catch a lot of shows.  You may not be able to do late nights at Mangia or Stag Nights at the Blank Space.  But whatever you can do goes a really long way.  The click of a mouse shows you’re engaged.  A quick share and brief comment show it matters to you.  Whether you can spend a buck on it or not, you’re listening.  You give a damn.  And that’s what keeps this thing growing.